How to be an active reader by the English with Stephen podcast

Learning Strategies: Active reading

This is the transcript for the second English with Stephen podcast on how you can be an active reader and so make the most out of any book you are reading.

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Hello and welcome! My name is Stephen Greene, and this is English with Stephen.

In the last two episodes, I looked at why reading books is such an important and effective way to learn a language. I talked about some reasons why people don’t read and suggested some tips as to how you can make reading a habit to overcome those reasons.

Today, I am going to look at how you can make yourself an active reader so that you can exploit the book you are reading to the maximum. At the end, I will recommend two books that I have used with students and had great success with.

You will hear all that, after this short musical interlude.

Before we start, this is just a quick reminder that you can find the transcript for this episode on my site, You can also find links to all the previous episodes, including the two about why reading is so important and some tips to help make reading a habit on that site.

Traditionally, reading was seen as a passive activity. Speaking and writing were active because you had to do something, move your mouth or hands, and actually produce language. Reading, and listening, were seen as passive, because you sat back and let the words enter your eyes or brain and the meaning magically appeared in your brain.

Obviously, this is nonsense. If you have tried to read an English text that is too difficult, you know how tiring it can be. The reader has to interact with the text and create their own meaning. I might understand something totally different to what the writer intended, or something different to another reader. And that is because I am not passive, but active in the process.

When I talk about being an active reader, though, I am talking about more than this. I am talking about the things we can do either while we are reading or after reading to try to make sure that we understand and learn as much as possible.

There are different strategies that you can use depending on what your goal is. Some of these strategies will help you remember the text, some will help you understand the text and others will help you learn more vocabulary or grammar. Some of these activities are quick and easy, and maybe you already do them. Some of the activities take a bit more time and perhaps you don’t need to do them all the time.

The thing most of these strategies have in common, though, is that they both require, and improve, your critical thinking strategies. Critical thinking is the ability to ask who is writing, why they are writing, and how they are achieving their goals. For me, critical thinking is one of the most important skills we can develop in the 21st century. So, if you use some or all of these strategies you will not only improve your English but also your ability to think about what you are being told.

  1. Pre-reading questions – as yourself what this text is about, what you think is going to happen, what you are expecting. You can do this before you start reading and before each chapter. If you write your expectations, then you can check if you were correct at the end of the book or chapter.
  2. Identify new words or phrases – if possible, don’t stop each time you find a word you don’t understand. Try to understand, or at least guess, its meaning from context. Instead, make a note of the word or phrase and then, when you have finished the chapter, you can go back and check any words you didn’t understand.
  3. Summarise – After every chapter, and again after the book, summarise what you have read. Writing a summary helps you to remember the story and gives you the opportunity to use any new language you have noticed.
  4. Talk about it – If possible, tell somebody about what you are reading. Like a summary, this will help to keep the story alive in your mind. If the other person has also read the book, you can discuss ideas about the story and what it means. Even if the other person hasn`t read the same book, it can start a good conversation and encourage you to read another book.
  5. Write a review – An alternative to talking about a book is to write about it. Write a review of the book you have just read and post it on Amazon or Good Reads. There is a good chance you will start an online conversation with other people who have also read the book.
  6. Use a lexical notebook – I talk about lexical notebooks a lot. I know I do. Vut lexical notebooks are a great way to improve your vocabulary. I have an episode all about how lexical notebooks are just brilliant, but in brief they offer you a way to organise new vocabulary in a way that makes it easy for your brain to remember. Seriously, start a lexical notebook. You can thank me later.
  7. Analyse – Is there an aspect of English that you are trying to develop? For example, are you worried about prepositions, or the present perfect tense? Well, one thing you can do is, after you have finished a book or a chapter, choose a couple of pages to analyse. Try to find examples of prepositions or the present perfect tense or whatever it is you want to improve. As you find examples ask yourself why the writer used them here. Were there any alternatives? Why didn’t the writer use the alternatives?
  8. Reflect – In our busy lives it is sometimes difficult to find the time to just sit and think. But it is a valuable activity for many reasons, but especially after you have finished a book. Reflecting on the message from the book, how you feel and how you have changed is vital if you want to let the book become a part of you. Slow down and take some time to think about what you have just read.

So those are the strategies that I use when I am reading that help me to be an active reader. If you have any other strategies, I would love to hear about them. You can tell me on my site,, or on any of my social media. Also, if you use any of those strategies let me know how you get on.

Which brings me to the last part of this last episode on reading books to improve your English: my book recommendations.

I am going to recommend two books that I have used with all sorts of students: teenagers, adults, men, women, business people, students, almost every profile of student you can imagine. They are both appropriate for students who are good intermediate or upper-intermediate level and higher. This means you should be B2 or higher if you use the Council of Europe Framework for languages.

The first book is ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time’ by Mark Haddon. This is just a fantastic book, and one of my favourites. It tells the story of a young teenager who decides he is going to solve a crime. I don’t want to give you any spoilers, so I will just say that the book is great for English learners because the style is so direct. There are short sentences, with very little idiomatic language and the narrator talks directly to the reader. I have used this book with hundreds of students, and it has been a success every time.

The second book is ‘Persepolis’ by Marjane Satrap. This is an autobiography and tells the story about how the writer grew up in Iran during and after the Islamic revolution. On the one hand, we have a young woman facing all the problems young women face everywhere in the world. And on the other hand, she has to deal with the results of a revolution that has changed everything. This is such a good book for students because it is a great story and it is a graphic novel, so the pictures help to create context to help you understand the story. Again, I have used this book with hundreds of students, and they have all loved it.

So that is everything for my mini-series on how reading books can help you learn English. I hope you have enjoyed it and hope it has motivated you to try reading a book in English in the future. If you do, let me know about the book and what you thought of it.

Thanks for listening and I hope to speak to you again next week.

Happy reading!

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